Friday, March 20, 2009

Massimo Polidoro: An Italian Champion of Skepticism

Interview by Bernd Harder

-The Skeptical Inquirer calls you a „professional skeptic“: How did you turn skepticism into a profession? (A few biographical remarks.)

I am not sure I would call myself a “professional skeptic”, thus meaning that I make my living by being skeptical. What I do is investigate mysterious happenings and then tell about what I discover. And that’s from my “telling” that I mainly earn my living. Through my books, articles, TV shows and lectures. So, maybe I should say that I am a professional storyteller… with a skeptical outlook.

-Ok, but how did you start this odd career?

First of all I was very lucky. And secondly I took my childhood dreams very seriously. I must explain. I grew up as a kid with a strong fascination for all that was magical and mysterious. The first movie that I can remember playing a strong part in my imagination was “The Great Houdini” with Tony Curtis, which I saw around the age of five. When I saw that fantastic superhero, with all his magical techniques, his ability to escape from anything and his cavalier like qualities in fighting bogus mediums taking advantage of people in need, I fell in love. My first thought was: “I want to be like him”.

-And so what did you do to be like Houdini?

Well, it is not like I was thinking each day how to become like him. I had my school, my passion for music, and The Beatles in particular, which led me when I was twelve to create an Italian Beatles fan club and publish a fanzine that had a circulation of over 100 subscribers (in the days when the Internet did not exist). So, with the little money I got from this I was able to foster my other great interests: magic and the paranormal. I bought books, mainly from the USA (I learned my English thanks to Beatles songs, rather then from my teachers), and read anything on the subject that I could put my eyes on. I also performed magic quite early at birthday parties and for friends. Luckily I got sidetracked.


Yes. Making a career as a magician is very hard, and if you don’t become a superstar like Copperfield or Sigfried & Roy (which is not that simple, as you can imagine), you could very well end up performing at weddings and restaurants for the rest of your life. Which can be great fun, don’t get me wrong, but wasn’t really what I was aiming for.

-So you got sidetracked.

I was about 15 when I read a book by Italian science journalist Piero Angela titled “Journey into the world of the paranormal” and, for the first time, I was exposed to a skeptical point of view on parapsychology. The book was a thourough examination of parapsychology, which answered many questions that had been hanging in my mind. It revealed to me that America had a great thing called CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now CSI, Center for Skpetical Inquiry), founded by philosopher Paul Kurtz. Furthermore, it had a few chapters dealing with Uri Geller and other similar subjects, all discussed from the point of view of James “The Amazing” Randi, another co-founder of CSICOP. I had never heard of Randi and to read here, for the first time, about the adventures of this very clever and astute magician, that not only rivaled but surpassed in many ways those of Houdini, was a revelation for me.

-In the sense that now you wanted to be like Randi?

Exactly! So I immediately subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of CSICOP, and wrote both to Piero Angela and to Randi. To Angela I said that I would have loved to see the birth, in Italy, of a Committee like CSICOP that could investigate paranormal claims, and to Randi that I very much admired his worked and that hoped to meet him one day. To my great surprise both answered me. Angela, which is one of the most popular and respected TV personalities in Italy, told me that he too wanted to create such a Committee, but that there were very few people in Italy interested in helping, so he was putting them all together and asked me to join. Can you imagine how excited I was? And then the ice on the cake: Randi wrote that he would come to Italy in order to help is friend Piero Angela start the Italian Committee and that he would gladly meet me. I was on top of the world. And it was only the beginning.

-What happened next?

Well, to make a long story short, we all met in Italy, and this was in October of 1988. Piero invited me and Randi to Rome, where he lived. Thus I had a wonderful chance to bombard Randi with the million questions I had in my mind about Houdini (on which he was an authority), on magic, on the paranormal and so on. I even got to play as his hidden accomplice during a TV show. To me this was more than I could ask for, but after a couple of days, during a dinner at Piero’s house, with all his family, they dropped the bomb. Piero had discussed this before with Randi and was eager to make a proposal to me: was I interested in going to study with Randi in America, sponsored by him, in order to learn how to be an investigator of mysteries and then come back to Italy and run the Italian Committee? You can easily guess my answer!

-So that’s how it all started. And then, when you returned to Italy you started CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and, at the same time, studied Psychology at the University of Padua.

Yes, I felt I needed a formal education and Psychology looked to me as the best answer to my thirst of understanding. Because I feel that I have always been driven by a sincere need to understand, rather than simply debunk or dismiss incredible claims. I like to approach a claim with an open mind, as much as this is possible; try to see things from the point of view of the claimant and try to understand what is really happening there, if the person is deluding him or herself or if there’s really something that deserves further analysis. The most satisfying experience for me, at the end of an investigation, is not just to find a solution to a mystery but to understand the mechanisms by which one or more persons were lead, in good faith, to see the extraordinary in something that, maybe, turned out to be quite ordinary.

-How do you avoid, both in public and in private, that people perceive you as an odd eccentric, who may be somehow interesting and fun but who isn’t taken seriously?

I am not one that constantly talks about his interests and passions, and I certainly don’t get into quarrels with people I meet that strongly believe in the unbelievable. I respect all positions, and if asked I express mine, without trying to convince everybody that I am right. Furthermore, many of my friends don’t even know about my work as an investigator of mysteries, until they see me on TV or read about me in some magazine. To most I am mainly a writer and a journalist.

-Do you regard yourself as some kind of modern Houdini, who is known to have enjoyed debunking mediums, clairvoyants and charlatans of all kind?

No. As much as I love Houdini, and I have written two books about him and keep on studying his fascinating figure, I don’t seek to be recognized as a modern version of himself. In his own time, probably, his aggressive approach was what was needed to fight Spiritualist frauds, taking advantage of the huge demand for reassurance of an afterlife after the bereavement brought on by World War I. I prefer a different approach. I don’t engage in fist fights with charlatans. I try to be as friendly and open to those who claim psychic powers as I can. Most of the time, these people are sincere and truly believe in what they do, they truly think they can bring some help or consolation to others. Of course, if I see there’s even a hint of fraud in their practices I go ahead and publicly reveal what I found. In some cases, like that of a cruel fraud by a philippino healer, we even brought in the police to pursue the matter.

-Why is all this still necessary? Why do people still believe in the supernatural, despite all the debunking and despite all the scientific education we have in our time?

I don’t think that people will ever stop believing in the supernatural or avoid falling into the traps of superstition. I fear that these traits belong to the human nature. However, I think that the role of people like you and me can be very important. As the Chinese used to say: “it is better to light a candle, than to curse darkness”. And with all our work, our investigations and debunking of frauds, we actually help keep the light of reason alive. So that any wayfarer, lost in the dark forest of the irrational, can see it and use it as a guide to get free and leave the darkness of ignorance behind. If he or she wants, of course. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Today, it is true that the Internet can spread all kinds of poisonous ideas everywhere, but it is also true that our voice can be a lot easier to find than it has ever been possible. So maybe we should learn from our opposition and make a better and more effective use of this wonderful and powerful instrument.

-In Germany, right now the second season of „The next Uri Geller“ suffers from a massive drop in ratings. Do you regard this as a good sign?

I think that it probably depends from the fact that second seasons of reality shows always see droppings in ratings. The novelty is lost on the viewers and fewer are interested in repeating the experience. If tomorrow there’s a new paranormal show, with something really exciting on it (maybe naked bodies and explosions!), it will very likely be another hit.

-What is the current state, in 2009, of the eternal battle between skeptics and obscurantists? Do the skeptics gain some ground? What is the direction of public opinion in this case, that is, the development of society in this regard?

It seems to me that beliefs go in cycles. In the 1970’s there was the explosion of the paranormal: Uri Geller, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, the Age of Aquarius, biorhythms, the Bermuda Triangle, talking with plants… Then the 80’s saw a dropping of interest in the subject for many reasons. One was certainly the establishment of organized skepticism with CSICOP, and the subsequent debunking of many self claimed psychics and the discovery that many ideas, like biorhythms, simply didn’t work. Then in the 90’s there was a resurgence of beliefs in the occult, starting with New Age ideas and culminating with the magical notion that something major would happen on the year 2000. Well, nothing magical happened in the year 2000, while something terrible (foreseen by no one) took place in 2001. New Age is now old stuff, as are many beliefs linked to it, like channeling or crystal healing. So, it seems to go in decades: sometimes irrationality is high and the next decade is low. As much as we feel that irrationality never goes away, today we are probably around the end of a “low period”, and I am afraid that the new high cycle is currently building up and will probably explode around the fatidical 2012, that again some see as a turning point. We’ll see.

-How should skeptics react to the TV appearances of Geller & Co.? In other words: When and how should skeptics react? And in which cases/under which circumstances would it be better to simply ignore such frenzies in the media?

In Italy, with CICAP, when we were in the early stages and relatively unknown, we immediately reacted to every TV show that promoted the paranormal with no skeptical point of view present. Letters to TV station and to newspapers (there were no emails then) were helpful. They brought us attention and put the authors of such programs on guard. For they soon started to invite us as well and, today, we can say that, most of the time, when there is a TV show on the occult, or some journalist has to write about the paranormal, they contact us in order to have one of our members participate or to report our position. But this was a result brought about by creating strong links with the media, by becoming friends with many journalists, and not attacking them as irresponsible fools. Usually, an author of a program is not out to con the viewers and foster superstition. They just want to make an attractive show, gather as much viewers as possible, and thus have high ratings and consequently more publicity, that is to say more money. This is the final goal of commercial television: money. If skeptics find a way to appear as attractive, witty and interesting as psychics and astrologers they certainly get their share of TV exposure. But if all you can do is preach and condemn, then don’t be surprised if you are ignored.

-In Italy belief in miracles is still wide-spread. Don’t you make enemies in the „homeland“ of catholicism if you try to criticize figures like Padre Pio etc.?

Ours is certainly a singular situation. The fact is that Italy is the “home” of the Pope and, while this does not imply that Italians are more religious than people in other countries, as many polls show year after year, it certainly implies that the media gives enormous space and time to anything coming from the Vatican. As for our work, we notice that we are usually applauded by the Church when we investigate Astrology or the Occult in general, while we are criticized when the subject of our work is the Blood of St. Januarius or the Shroud of Turin. I have to admit, however, that this kind of criticism comes usually from some diehard fanatic or from a singular priest, never have we received an official reprimend from the high quarters. Another example of one the oldest strategies of the Church: ignoring criticism and just waiting for it to vanish. If they are still here after 2000 years it must mean that it works.

-What was your most interesting case?

It’s hard to say. It could very well be my first case, that of a poltergeist phenomena that centered around a kid who was just six years younger than me. The media made a big thing out of this poltergeist story. Furniture would fall on the ground, windows would brake, lamps would explode… The house of this family in Milano looked like it had been through a earthquake. And in the end, when through a stratagem I found that it was just the kid who threw and broke things when no one was looking, I felt like Houdini for a moment. “Ah-ah, I got you, you are a fraud!” But immediately after, I learned that true life is not a cartoon and that things can be more complex then they seem. The kid was passing through some difficult times, he felt neglected by his parents who worked too much, and by accident had found that, when he broke a lamp, instead of being scolded he attracted a lot of attention. He kept doing it and the attention mounted. Soon the press was on it and the house was invaded by all kinds of people, including many psychics who just wanted to exploit the kid for their own self promotion. Basically, he had started the Frankenstein monster and did not know how to get out of it. That’s why I never publicly debunked the kid. Instead, I talked to him, tried to understand him, and the whole thing just deflated itself. It was quite an eye opening lesson for me.

(This interview was published originally as "Detektiv des Übersinnlichen" (Detective of the Supernatural) in the German Society for the Scientific Study of Parascience's journal Skeptiker 1/09, p. 30-33).

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